NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Rarely do teams make it to the Final Four without at least one nationally recognized star player. Each team in this year’s version is represented in the AP All-America first team, and Stanford is no exception, with senior Chiney Ogwumike leading the charge for the Cardinal. But teams also don’t make it do the Final Four on the back of just one player, and it is Stanford’s role players beyond Ogwumike that are a big reason for its presence in Nashville.
Ogwumike is a two-time All-American, this season being by unanimous selection. She averages 26.4 points per game, good enough to rank third in the country. She pulls down 12.1 rebounds per game, which stands ninth in the nation, and has 66 blocks on the season, more than half of the team’s 129.But if Stanford is going to beat Connecticut on Sunday, it will likely need strong performances from more than just Ogwumike -- and recent weeks, the Cardinal have shown the ability to put together just that.
In a tight battle against North Carolina in the regional final, one that Stanford pulled ahead late to win 74-65 to advance to its sixth Final Four in the past seven years, four Cardinal players not named Ogwumike scored in double figures. It was just the third time this season that happened. Senior Mikaela Ruef was named the Stanford Regional most outstanding player, having scored a career-high 17 points while adding nine rebounds and three assists against the Tar Heels.
Stanford head coach Tara Vanderveer credited the team’s collective nature and some of the behind-the-scenes work done off the court and in practice by players who may not get as many minutes on the court.
“Chiney is the leader of our team, in terms of being prepared for the game, and when we’re at the gym,” Vanderveer said. “Then we have other people that are very vocal, Erica Payne, Jasmine Camp, they are vocal leaders. I think everyone is supportive of each other.”
To get to the national title game, the Cardinal will first have to knock off defending champion Connecticut, which stands at 38-0 and ran the table this season as No. 1. The Cardinal played the Huskies in the second game of the season, and come out on the wrong end of a 76-57 affair. Ogwumike’s 16 points was her second lowest scoring output of the season, but junior Amber Orrange set a career high with 22 points. Orrange, who could be a key factor again on Sunday, has assist-to-turnover ratio that is ninth in the country at 2.93. Ruef, who scored just three points but grabbed nine rebounds in that game, says that the Cardinal look like a much different team than at the beginning of the season.
“We’ve improved so much from the beginning of the year until now,” Reuf said. “I thought coming in to this season that we had a lot of talent, that we could go far, but it seemed like we weren’t showing how good we are. But lately in the games that we’ve played, we’ve really stepped up. The freshmen, sophomores, juniors have stepped up and have shown a lot of heart and a lot of poise in big moments. I’m so proud of everyone.”
Orrange has averaged 12.3 points in the NCAA tournament, up more than two points from her regular-season mark. She has also dished out 18 assists in the four games while shooting 56.8 percent from the field.
The upperclassmen aren’t the only ones stepping up. In addition to Orrange and Reuf’s improved consistency in the NCAA tournament, freshman Lili Thompson has averaged 11.5 points while drawing some of the tougher defensive assignments -- and holding Penn State’s Maggie Lucas to six points and North Carolina’s Diamond DeShields to 13.
“Our freshman are very important to our team, but the thing is, we don’t talk about class,” Ogwumike said of the youngest Cardinal members. “We talk about what everyone brings. Just getting to play with them, they bring a whole new energy that has sort of reinvigorated our team and has really been a huge part in getting us to the Final Four.”
With all of these improvements across the board for the Cardinal, it is impossible to ignore the influence of the first person to come to mind when any member of the team is asked about their leader. Ogwumike accepts this role, and tries to allow her attitude to rub off on the rest of the team, bringing about a balance and understanding between the seniors, freshman and everyone in between.
“I have to exude confidence,” Ogwumike said. “If I’m confident, my team will play confidently.
“We don’t really do one thing amazingly as a team,” she added. “Our combination of so many different things is why we’re special.”
The senior class at Stanford is the only one that has experienced a win against Connecticut, despite a matchup in every year. It came on Dec. 30, 2010, when the Cardinal snapped a win streak of 90 games for the Huskies. Ogwumike was the only player still at Stanford to play significant minutes in that game.
If Stanford is going to pull off another win streak-snapping upset, continued contributions from the rest of the squad beyond Ogwumike will be key. Vanderveer says she likes what she sees from her team going in.
“They’re a mature team and a focused team,” Vanderveer said. “We’re playing very well; we have a lot of confidence in how we’re playing.”